This Week in Football History: Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello and the great AC Milan era

“Marco van Basten often asked me why we had to win and also be convincing. A few years ago, France Football made their list of the ten greatest teams in history, and my Milan was right up there. I told Marco, ‘this is why you need to win and be convincing’. Although I didn’t do it because I wanted to write history. I did it because I wanted to give 90 minutes of joy to people, and I wanted that joy to come not from winning, but from being entertained, from witnessing something special” – Arrigo Sacchi.

Football’s greatest managers largely fall into two camps – the pragmatists and the visionaries.

The pragmatists are driven by a win-at-all-costs attitude and any failure only serves to increase their desire for success. The visionaries sought to revolutionise the game and rewrite the history books. And for a decade between the mid-1980s and -90s, AC Milan established an era of dominance unrivalled in club football since the days of Di Stefano’s Real Madrid thanks primarily to the works of two managers, one a visionary and one a pragmatist – Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello.

By the mid-1980s, football across the world had largely stagnated. The sport was forced to take a back seat amidst rampant political upheaval and revolution throughout both Latin America and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile in Western Europe the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters finally made the footballing world stand up and take note of the endemic issues of hooliganism, corruption and collapsing stadia that had plagued the sport for the previous decade.

If football off the pitch had become a sport overshadowed by the behaviour of fans, police and politicians alike by the late 1980s, on the pitch it had become blighted by ultra-violent and ultra-defensive tactics, culminating at the 1990 World Cup which saw a record high number of cards dished out and a record low number of goals scored, along with some incredibly tedious passages of play as the back-pass rule came to be increasingly abused. (See Ireland vs Egypt from that tournament)

Tactically, nothing much happened either. The 50s, 60s, and 70s had seen football come up with the flat back four, catenaccio, the libero, 4-2-4, Brazil’s 1970 side, 4-4-2, 4-3-3, and Total Football. After Bayern in the mid-70s and Total Football failing one last time thanks to a goalpost little progress was made for the next decade. There was Estudiantes’ highly aggressive and vicious ‘anti-football’ in the late 60s, brief English success at the end of the 70s with Brian Clough and Bob Paisley, and fleeting attempts from Graham Taylor and Mils Liedholm to introduce high pressing and zonal marking, but that was about it.

Italy however, as it always has been in world football, was the exception. Despite facing the same problems off the pitch as the rest of Europe, on the pitch the country flourished, graced with the talents of Platini’s Juventus and Maradona’s Napoli while also playing host to the occasional Brazilian – Careca, Socrates, Zico and Falcao all spent years in the Serie A during the 80s.

But Italian football remained tactically rooted in defence. The libero, or sweeper, was still a staple of most Italian sides and the role of the playmaker had become increasingly important to unlock the blanket defences of the time. And this old-fashioned style was indeed somewhat successful during the 80s – a World Cup victory in 1982 was followed by European Cup silver medals in 83′ and 84′ by Juventus and Roma respectively before Juve won the trophy in 85′ on that horrifically tragic night in Brussels.

Change began in 1986 when business magnate and the now rather pantomime character of Silvio Berlusconi took over AC Milan, a side still recovering from the humiliation of the totocalcio scandal of 1982. His first act as owner was to hire the little known but exceptionally well-tailored Arrigo Sacchi as head coach.

Sacchi promptly destroyed the status quo of Italian football.

Sacchi’s appointment was a staggering gamble for Berlusconi. Sacchi himself was never good enough to play football professionally and his early managerial days included stints at mostly unknown clubs such as Baracca Lugo, AC Cesena and AC Rimini. It was at Parma however that he first caught the eye of Berlusconi, moving from youth coach to first team coach in just a few years and then leading the northern Italian club to within a whisker of promotion to the Serie A, beating AC Milan in the Coppa Italia along the way.

At the time Berlusconi looked like a madman. Sacchi had neither the experience nor credibility to manage a club of such a stature, but after beautifully reminding everyone that “to be a jockey you don’t have to have been born a horse” he went about instilling his footballing vision on a team boasting experience in abundance and a couple of once-in-a-generation young defenders.

Milan’s defence of Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini has since come to be regarded as the greatest back four of all time and in midfield were the somewhat forgotten and underrated Angelo Columbo and Roberto Donadoni, along with Carlo Ancelotti as the anchor.

Sacchi then looked abroad for attacking flair. Having been heavily inspired by Holland’s Total Football he went about signing Dutch playmaker Ruud Gullit and centre-forward Marco van Basten who, along with Maradona, was the best player in the world in 1987, and defensive midfielder Frank Rijkaard a year later.

Hampered by injuries to van Basten during 87/88 Sacchi’s Milan were statistically a mostly defensive side. Scoring 43 goals but only conceding 14 over a 30 game season paints a picture of a traditional catenaccio team.

But the stats lie. Sacchi had created a side that wouldn’t sit back and soak up pressure, instead they hounded the ball down. He realised that the greatest sides “owned the ball when in possession” and “owned the space” when out of possession. To enact such a philosophy he drilled his players in the art of pressing, but pressing as a unit rather than as individuals and along with pressing came the ideals of zonal marking and the short-team.

The short-team was an idea that Sacchi had by which he realised the shorter the distance between his defenders and strikers the easier it would be to win the ball back. By squeezing the playing area between defence and attack to around 20-25 metres it made it almost impossible for the opposition to play through them, and equally as difficult to play over-the-top as the back four were absolute masters of the offside trap.

His methods brought immediate success as Milan won their first Scudetto for nine years in 87/88 after only losing twice all season and famously beating Maradona and Napoli 3-2 in the penultimate game of the season. The next season, with a fit and firing Van Basten and Gullit up front Milan began scoring more, but they finished third behind a spectacular one season charge from rivals Inter.

In 89/90 they were beaten to the title again by a resurgent Napoli but only after a tribunal awarded Napoli a victory over Atalanta following an incident where their goalkeeper had been struck by an object thrown from the crowd. Milan cried of a conspiracy but no one listened and then in 1990/91, which was to be Sacchi’s final season at Milan (except for a 10-month return in 96), they lost to another one season wonder in the form of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli’s swashbuckling Sampdoria.

But it was not in Italy that the legacy of Sacchi’s Milan was made, it was throughout Europe. In the 88/89 season Milan had scraped through to the semi-final stage where they met Real Madrid. In what is the defining tie for an entire era of AC Milan and Italian football, Milan held Madrid to a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu thanks to an outrageous Van Basten header before taking the Spanish giants to the San Siro and smashing five goals past them.

If the 5-0 was as shocking as it was spectacular, their performance in the 1989 European Cup final against Steaua Bucharest was completely predictable. Despite winning the tournament in 1986 and having Gheorghe Hagi in midfield Steaua knew they faced a monumental challenge. Milan swatted them aside with two goals from Gullit and Van Basten each.

May 24, 1989 – AC Milan 4-0 Steaua Bucharest, Camp Nou. (Goals at 0:10, 1:55, 2:50, 3:40)
AC Milan – Steaua Bucarest 4-0 [Barcelona 1989] by Shooting-star

A year later, having recovered from the disappointment and supposed conspiracy of losing the league title Milan were back in the European Cup final, this time facing a resurgent Benfica under the management of a young Sven-Goran Eriksson. A turgid and defensive affair was settled by a Milan breakaway and Rijkaard toe-poke.

May 23, 1990 – AC Milan 1-0 Benfica. Praterstadion, Vienna.
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The problem with the visionaries however, is that they often lack ambition. The will to entertain and to revolutionise often trumped the will to win, and it certainly did with Sacchi as his shortcomings in Serie A prove. But Sacchi had changed the way football was played, and his methods have influenced just about every great manager since. The most immediate of these influences was on his successor Fabio Capello, who took over in Milan after Sacchi was offered the role of head coach of the national team.

To call Capello a pragmatist is perhaps a touch unfair. Barring the freakishly bizarre 93/94 season Capello’s Milan were initially just as attacking as they had been in any of the seasons coached by Sacchi, if not more so. His methods were largely the same also, after all if it isn’t broken why try and fix it.

Capello’s first season with Milan, 1991/92, was unprecedented in Serie A history as they went all 34 games without losing, a feat only achieved since by Juventus three years ago. The 34 game unbeaten run turned into a 58 game unbeaten run which finally came to an end in March 1993 after a 1-0 loss to Parma. It is a record that still stands today for any of Europe’s traditional top leagues.

Immediately after the glorious unbeaten season in 91/92, Capello, noting that he had an aging squad and an injury prone Van Basten, swiftly dived deep into Berlusconi’s pockets and threw the TV tycoon’s money at such players as Gianlugi Lentini, Zvonomir Boban, Dejan Savicevic, Brian Laudrup and Jean-Pierre Papin.

With such a star-studded cast squad rotation became key, and even though Van Basten was succumbing to his ankle injury during 92/93 the rest of the squad picked up the pieces, Papin in particular.

Rotation kept the squad fresh and Milan stormed away with the 1993 Serie A title too, but the trend back to the defensive had begun in that year’s European Cup. Milan played eight games in the run up to the 92/93 European Cup final (now rebranded as the Champions League), still with the same back four as in Sacchi’s first season, and only conceded one solitary goal. But in the final against a great Marseille side, and without Van Basten and an injured Papin on the bench they fell to a 1-0 defeat.

May 26, 1993 – Marseille 1-0 AC Milan. Olympiastadion, Munich.
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But Capello bounced right back in 93/94 and with Van Basten’s ankle in ruins and Papin sidelined too, he decided his newest side were simply never going to concede. He signed destroyer Marcel Desailly and for one season Milan reverted to the old catenaccio days and finished with the astonishing statistic of winning the league despite only scoring 36 goals, essentially one goal per game. They just refused to concede, letting in a mere 15 goals in Serie A and just two in the Champions League.

In winning the league they had managed eight 0-0 draws and eight 1-0 wins, and they never scored more than two goals in any game in the league and only managed three goals in a game once in the Champions League, against Porto.

Spectacularly defensive and ruthlessly efficient, Capello’s 93/94 Milan once again made it to the Champions League final on May 18, 1994, in Athens, only this time they were considered massive underdogs as their opposition was Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘dream team’. Milan were also missing Lentini, Van Basten and Papin to injury, and Baresi, Costacurta and Laudrup to suspension. Barcelona, with the free scoring Hristo Stoichkov and Romario up front were expected to steamroll Capello’s men.

We all know what happened next.

May 18, 1994 – AC Milan 4-0 Barcelona. Olympic Stadium, Athens. (Goals start at 2:05)
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Milan, having never looked like scoring any more than a couple goals against lowly Serie A opposition had put four past Barcelona. Two from Danielle Massaro, a brilliant lob from Savicevic and a Desailly curler left the Dream Team in tatters.

Milan were the kings of Europe, and they had been ever since 1987. Seven seasons, four Serie A titles, three European Cups, one manager who changed the face of the sport, and one who established a dynasty of red and black footballing domination.

Capello was to have one more bite at European glory in the 1995 Champions League final in Vienna, only to be out-thought by one of a new breed of rising managers in Louis van Gaal and his equally pragmatic Ajax side. Sacchi meanwhile, saw his Italy side narrowly progress from the group stage at USA 94, before he took a backseat to the ultimately tragic Roberto Baggio saga as ‘Il divine codino’ dragged his nation kicking and screaming to the final against Brazil before missing that penalty.

Not until Messi, Guardiola, and Barcelona today has there ever been a club side anything like Sacchi and Capello’s Milan.